Setting the mindset!

These days, consulting mental conditioning coaches isn’t new. While the players have made it a routine to attend sessions with mental trainers, the teams and the federations have also realised the benefits of having a mental conditioning coach in the side — it not only keeps a team mentally strong, it also helps it overcome tough situations.

Mrinal Chakraborty, the mental conditioning coach of the Indian junior hockey team, exults as his wards march towards the coveted World Cup. India’s triumph was in part due to Chakraborty’s techniques of mind training.

When the Indian junior hockey team started its campaign in the World Cup last year, not many expected it to go far. The tournaments prior to the World Cup hadn’t quite gone well for the side, and thinking that it would clinch the title was too big a dream.

But on a foggy December evening in Lucknow last year, a bunch of youngsters did what wasn’t expected of them — winning the World Cup.

It’s been six months since, but even now, the hockey fraternity seems to be basking in its glory. While most of the players of that team agree that the victory is still the highest point of their career, they also unanimously admit that ‘mental fitness’ had a big role to play in their success.

If coach Harendra Singh ensured that the boys played their natural games, noted mental conditioning coach Mrinal Chakraborty was assigned to take stock of the team’s mental fitness level. And, perhaps that’s why, the hockey fraternity believes that Chakraborty’s morale booster sessions have not only helped the India colts win the title, but have also helped the game grow.

These days, consulting mental conditioning coaches isn’t anything new. While the players have made it a routine to attend sessions with mental trainers, the teams and the federations have also realised the benefits of having a mental conditioning coach in the side — it not only keeps a team mentally strong, it also helps it overcome tough situations. And perhaps, that’s why, Olympian shooter Abhinav Bindra consults noted mind coach Dr. Amit Bhattacharjee or Delhi Daredevils appoints South African mental conditioning expert Paddy Upton as its coach for the Indian Premier League (IPL).

After all, understanding the mind is not easy.

Chakraborty has played a decent level of hockey in his younger days. And this helped him understand the needs of the players better.

Though he is not too keen on taking credit for the junior hockey team’s success, Chakraborty agrees that his sessions with the young guns actually helped them stay rejuvenated. “With so many young players around, it is necessary to keep things simple and engage them in the entire process. That’s what we did during the junior World Cup,” Chakraborty tells Sportstar from Kolkata.

May be, Chakraborty’s sporting background and experience gave him the edge. A product of the Sports Authority of India (SAI)’s Kolkata centre, he happens to be a former hockey player too. Playing alongside former India captain Dilip Tirkey, Chakraborty understands why it is extremely necessary to focus on mental conditioning. “There is a wrong notion that one session with a mental coach can create wonders. That’s not possible. A long and thorough programme normally takes around nine months,” he says, adding that with junior coach Harendra giving him enough freedom, it was possible for him to plan the programme properly.

After taking charge during the national camp in Shilaroo in 2015, Chakraborty’s first job was to monitor each and every player’s Primary Motivating Factor. Once that was set, the senior mental conditioning coach then introduced the Neuro-Linguistic Programme (NLP) to develop mind strategy.

A student of Dr. Richard Bandler, who is the co-creator of the NLP programme, Chakraborty made it a point to spend quality time with each and every player. “It was important to know each of them. If you don’t understand a player’s psyche, it is not possible to get the best out of him,” he says. That has been his mantra to crack the mind code.

Finding the emotional quotient

As the preparation for the mega event started, Chakraborty discovered that the major players of the team looked clueless about how to achieve success. It’s not that they were not putting in their best efforts, but the cookie would eventually crumble under pressure.

And, the three main players in the list were captain Harjeet Singh, defender Harmanpreet Singh and goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya. Being the mainstays of the team, it was important that they were mentally refreshed. “At such a young age, it is quite possible to be a bit clueless about the road to success. That’s what had happened to them,” Chakraborty says, adding: “Such things happen when there is any distraction.” But what was diverting their mind?

Chakraborty says, this happens due to a lot of factors. “It depends on the social upbringing, attitude. So, whenever there is some pressure, negative thoughts related to those issues affect the mind. That affects the performance as well,” he says.

He clearly remembers that day when Harmanpreet had told him that he was unable to control his anger, and that affected his game. “While working with players, it is important to keep things easy. You need to constantly monitor their behavioural pattern,” the seasoned mental conditioning coach, who has previously worked with archers and the paddlers, says.

Even Harjeet admits that he would often fail under pressure. “There would be times when I would feel low. Kabhi kabar lagta tha, kuch nahi hoga mera,” the captain says. And, Chakraborty points out that such thoughts come to the mind due to economic and social factors. “Coming from a lower middle-class family, Harjeet always had a fear that he wouldn’t be able to achieve anything. My job was to eliminate that fear, and develop the leadership qualities,” Chakraborty says.

Of dark chocolate and feeling free

The chess players have a secret habit. Before every important game, they munch pieces of dark chocolate. Players and mental coaches claim that such a practice helps them increase the energy level and acts as a mental stimulant.

The Indian hockey players too followed a similar practice during the World Cup. Before taking the field, most of the players would have pieces of dark chocolate. “That helps in peaking up. Before some of the crucial games, quite a few players were benefited from this,” Chakraborty reveals.

The senior mental coach, who has also been working with archers Deepika Kumari and Jayanta Talukdar for a few months now, admits that for all the sportspersons, it is important to nourish the happy hormones — Endorphin, Dopamine, Serotonin. “In a stressful environment, these happy hormones help you stay refreshed and it directly affects the performance,” Chakraborty explains.

Live in the present

Armaan Qureshi is a confident striker, who is known for his attacking style of hockey. But he had a mental breakdown after he was left out of a tour game before the World Cup. Even though he tried to behave normally with team-mates, those knowing him from close quarters realised that something was wrong with this cheerful guy. Having played alongside Armaan’s maternal uncle Arshad Qureshi, Chakraborty gelled well with the youngster. “The decision was taken to test our bench strength, but Armaan took it otherwise. It was important to make him understand that,” Chakraborty reminisces.

So, in the next few days, Armaan learnt the art of double meanings, thanks to Chakraborty’s new technique. In a piece of paper, he would write down the negative words and give a positive meaning to it. An ‘END’ no longer meant all was over, rather it now meant, ‘E(ffort) N(ever) D(ies)’.

Chakraborty did particularly good work with goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya, who made two crucial saves in the semifinal tie-breaker against Australia in the World Cup. On the right is Indian Head Coach Roelant Oltmans.   -  Vino John/ a2zfotos

“I asked him to find out such positive meanings from negative words. So, words like ‘No’ now had different meaning — New Opportunity. That helped him overcome the odds and perform better,” Chakraborty says, adding that he asked the wards to ignore the past or the future and focus on the present. “Most of us in India suffer from this problem, which needs to be addressed.”

That, however, was not all.

Just months before the World Cup, Manpreet and Harmanpreet suffered injuries, because of which they couldn’t train with the team. But that was not a constraint as Chakraborty introduced Imaginary Technique for them, where they could think of a match situation even without taking the field. “This was practised by Carl Lewis. This formula prevents the player from feeling left out,” he says. This worked for the Indians too as they returned with a bang even after missing a fair amount of training sessions.

Before the team left for Lucknow for the tournament, it had developed a slogan — ‘No pressure, no diamond’. Both Harendra and Chakraborty ensured that the players followed it properly, and most of them had this stored in their mobile phones. “That helped them stay focussed throughout the tournament,” Chakraborty says. He, however, accepts that understanding human psychology is never easy. While many only seem to appreciate it when the results are favourable, things remain unexplored whenever there is an unexpected setback.